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Sunday, January 1, 2023

HMS Beagle voyage - Charles Darwin finding a channel !!

The relationship between science and religion has been discussed extensively through Dan Brown’s novels. In Origin, Brown writes, “scientists and spiritualists often use different vocabularies to describe the exact same mysteries of the universe”.  Around the world, millions of readers have read and re-read the  thriller ‘Origin’ by Dan Brown.  According to Brown, the initial spark of inspiration for his highly anticipated novel struck him when he first heard a provocative piece of classical music entitled Missa Charles Darwin — a piece composed by award-winning composer Gregory W. Brown, who happens to be his brother.    

Not a post on Dan Brown or his novel or music – but on the voyage, in fact the second voyage of a vessel made famous for carrying the famed Naturalist around the World.  It was a survey ship on which the man travelled and researched geology, natural history and ethnology onshore. He gained fame by publishing his diary journal, best known as The Voyage of the Beagle, and his findings played a pivotal role in the formation of his scientific theories on evolution and natural selection.

Miles away, -  Beagle Channel is a strait in the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago, on the extreme southern tip of South America between Chile and Argentina.  The channel separates the larger main island of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego from various smaller islands and its eastern area forms part of the border between Chile and Argentina and the western area is entirely within Chile. The Beagle Channel is about 240 kilometres (130 nmi; 150 mi) long and 5 kilometres (3 nmi; 3 mi) wide at its narrowest point.  

Natural history is a domain of inquiry involving organisms, including animals, fungi, and plants, in their natural environment, leaning more towards observational than experimental methods of study. A person who studies natural history is called a naturalist or natural historian. The most famous Naturalist is Charles Darwin !

Charles Robert Darwin [1809  - 1882] was an English naturalist, geologist, and biologist, widely known for his contributions to evolutionary biology. His proposition that all species of life have descended from a common ancestor is now generally accepted and considered a fundamental concept in science.  In a joint publication with Alfred Russel Wallace, he introduced his scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process he called natural selection, in which the struggle for existence has a similar effect to the artificial selection involved in selective breeding. Darwin has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history and was honoured by burial in Westminster Abbey.

Darwin's early interest in nature led him to neglect his medical education at the University of Edinburgh; instead, he helped to investigate marine invertebrates.  His five-year voyage on HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836 established Darwin as an eminent geologist whose observations and theories supported Charles Lyell's concept of gradual geological change.  Puzzled by the geographical distribution of wildlife and fossils he collected on the voyage, Darwin began detailed investigations and, in 1838, devised his theory of natural selection.  Darwin published his theory of evolution with compelling evidence in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. Darwin's scientific discovery is the unifying theory of the life sciences, explaining the diversity of life.

HMS Beagle was a Cherokee-class 10-gun brig-sloop of the Royal Navy, one of more than 100 ships of this class. The vessel, was launched on 11 May 1820 from the Woolwich Dockyard on the River Thames. Later reports say the ship took part in celebrations of the coronation of King George IV of the United Kingdom, passing through the old London Bridge, and was the first rigged man-of-war afloat upriver of the bridge.

Captain Pringle Stokes was appointed captain of Beagle in Sept 1825, and the ship was allocated to the surveying section of the Hydrographic Office. The Beagle set sail from Plymouth on 22 May 1826 on her first voyage, under the command of Captain Stokes. The mission was to accompany the larger ship HMS Adventure (380 tons) on a hydrographic survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, under the overall command of the Australian Captain Phillip Parker King, commander and surveyor. Faced with the more difficult part of the survey in the desolate waters of Tierra del Fuego, Captain Stokes fell into a deep depression. At Port Famine on the Strait of Magellan he locked himself in his cabin for 14 days, then after getting over-excited and talking of preparing for the next cruise, shot himself on 2 August 1828. Following four days of delirium Stokes recovered slightly, but then his condition deteriorated and he died on 12 August 1828.  During this survey, the Beagle Channel was identified and named after the ship.

The second voyage of HMS Beagle, from 27 December 1831 to 2 October 1836, was the second survey expedition of HMS Beagle, under captain Robert FitzRoy who had taken over command of the ship on its first voyage after the previous captain, Pringle Stokes, committed suicide.  At the age of 22, the graduate Charles Darwin hoped to see the tropics before becoming a parson and accepted the opportunity.  

Beagle sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, and then carried out detailed hydrographic surveys around the coasts of southern South America, returning via Tahiti and Australia after having circumnavigated the Earth. The initial offer to Darwin told him the voyage would last two years; it lasted almost five. Darwin spent most of this time exploring on land: three years and three months land, 18 months at sea. Early in the voyage, Darwin decided that he could write a geology book, and he showed a gift for theorising. At Punta Alta in Argentina, he made a major find of gigantic fossils of extinct mammals, then known from very few specimens. He collected and made detailed observations of plants and animals. His findings undermined his belief in the doctrine that species are fixed, and provided the basis for ideas which came to him when back in England, leading to his theory of evolution by natural selection.

Interesting ! 

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

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